Saturday, 29 October 2011

Worried about Wakefield

Two names connected up in my consciousness this week: Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, and John Lewis, the retailer. The latter came up in conversation with a friend for whom the department store is a preferred destination. The former featured a couple of days later when I travelled to Wakefield to visit the newly-built art gallery, devoted to and named for the famous daughter of that city. It was there that the dots were joined up and I ‘discovered’ what many people already know: that Barbara was commissioned, in 1962, to create a sculpture to adorn the face of John’s shop in Oxford Street. It’s still there – although I admit to having never noticed it.

I’ve always liked Barbara Hepworth’s work, more especially since visiting her wonderfully evocative studio in St. Ives some years ago, and although Wakefield did not promise the romantic or artistic allure of the North Cornwall fishing port, I had decided that it is close enough to home for an easy excursion. But if, like me, you had Wakefield stereotyped as a run-down Northern backwater then arriving by train at Kirkgate station would perfectly confirm your prejudice: desolate, derelict and downright dangerous it is incredible – but for the fact of the matter - that this unmanned station is in daily use in the centre of an English city.

The walk from Kirkgate to the Hepworth gallery, though short, is unpleasant because it requires the crossing of complex, busy trunk roads. But the destination, a bend in the river, is attractive and well chosen and the new building, despite its profusion of blank, sharply angled, blue-grey concrete walls, manages to look at home, nestled cosily in the bosom of nature.

It was a school holiday when I visited so, once inside, my bleak, edge-of-town experience was quickly displaced by the cheerful hubbub of visiting families. The gallery itself is beautifully fit-for-purpose and the exhibits are intelligently displayed so as to present their most dramatic faces. The whole is undoubtedly a collection of world-class art housed in an appropriately magnificent setting – just as I had expected.

The walk back to the station, however, revealed something I had not expected. I took a more considered look at the surroundings and went a little out of the way, crossing busy traffic routes, so as to get close to the mediaeval Chantry Chapel. This fabulously ornate jewel of a building is isolated on a now disused bridge over the river. There were no visiting families admiring the intricate stone carvings. There was not even one passer-by. It was closed-up but for a notice pinned to the door advertising occasional services of worship. This building is a spectacular reminder not only of the former prosperity of Wakefield but also of the cultural shifts that have occurred since. Now it stands neglected and vulnerable to vandalism.

Approaching the station on foot was another revelation. The elegantly symmetrical, stone-faced station building dates back to 1845 and was listed (in 1979) as historically important. Although much damage has been done to it before and since, the grandeur of the architecture still proclaims its former significance as it clings, along with its later spawn of scruffy industrial sheds, to the commanding hillside position where it once served as a lynchpin of the regional economy. Its present owners afford it no respect.

The very small slice of Wakefield that I walked through contains important mediaeval, Victorian and contemporary heritage landmarks; yet all the money and attention has been lavished on just one of them. The new gallery is certainly a ‘destination’ but it is only the latest milestone in Wakefield’s history; as a newcomer it has no right to elbow the others into obscurity. And the City is, more than ever before, accessible at the centre of a network of canals, motorways and railways: Kirkgate station is a stop on the main rail line to and from London. Someone in the City Council should be thinking about joining up the dots.

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